The Einstein Intersection: New Wave SF with style but story lacks discipline

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany science fiction book reviewsThe Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

It doesn’t get any more New Wave SF than this very slim 1968 Nebula-winning novel (157 pages), and it’s hard to imagine anything like this being written today. The Einstein Intersection is a mythical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in a far-future Earth populated by the mutated remnants of humanity. Being a Samuel R. Delany book, the writing is disjointed, jazzy, lyrical, playful, and tantalizing. The surface events are fairly obscure, but it’s clear that the real narrative is buried beneath, and in case you didn’t catch on, every chapter has several obscure (and fairly pretentious) quotes from intellectuals, not least of all the author himself, who inserts between chapters snippets of his journals from his artistic travels in the Mediterranean while writing this book, in classic meta-fiction style. Even in a longer book I’d view this literary device as fairly self-indulgent, but when the entire story is 157 pages, it’s seems downright insulting to the reader. It’s very clear that reader expectations and tastes have changed dramatically in the last half century.

The plot, to be charitable, involves Lo-Lobey, a humanoid mutant in the far future who sounds more like a Neanderthal with great brute strength but limited brain capacity. He is a musician who plays his sword like a flute, and when his love Friza disappears one day, he sets out on a quest to find her. His nemesis is a fearful super-being called Kid Death, a mutant with the power to kill seemingly at will who is intent on wiping out other mutants (which makes you wonder why he doesn’t dispatch them all with a flick of the wrist).

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOne of the key themes of the book is the mythical overtones of Lo-Lobey’s Orpheus-like quest into the underworld, and by far the most amazing and intense part of the book is the extended sequence in which Lo-Lobey hunts down a massive minotaur underground and battles him. The writing is fantastic and if the book had been able to sustain more passages like this, I would have liked the novel much more. As it is, I felt that was the high point and the narrative collapsed afterward.

The other key theme is mutation as a metaphor for being “different,” and when we consider that Delany himself was a gay black poet growing up in Harlem, that makes sense. He married high-school classmate poet Marilyn Hacker after high school, but they experimented with polygamy and had affairs with both men and women, and Marilyn later declared herself lesbian after their divorce. So it’s fair to say Delany would consider himself different. The underlying theme of the story also strongly identifies with the mutants, and at the end of the story Lo-Lobey realizes that instead of imitating the traditions of the extinct human race, the aliens (for that is what they are) need to embrace their differences and live on their own terms. This may make sense thematically, but to shoehorn such a complex idea into the fragile vessel of this story is really over-reaching in my opinion.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo, since it wouldn’t even get a consideration now and might only count as a novella. I wish I could have been in on the award committee deliberations. There must have been an old-guard group supporting Golden Age writers, and a much younger, hipper, coffee-house social activist group on the other side, locked in a deadly struggle for supremacy. Tracking the Hugo and Nebula winners through past decades is a fascinating barometer of the changing times and SF readership, something that an MA thesis could be devoted to.

Published in 1967. The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1967. The surface story tells of the problems a member of an alien race, Lo Lobey, has assimilating the mythology of earth, where his kind have settled among the leftover artifacts of humanity. The deeper tale concerns, however, the way those who are “different” must deal with the dominant cultural ideology. The tale follows Lobey’s mythic quest for his lost love, Friza. In luminous and hallucinated language, it explores what new myths might emerge from the detritus of the human world as those who are “different” try to seize history and the day.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. According to Delaney himself, the old-guard vs New-Wave-Hipster award battle went exactly as you imagined it.

    A lot of Delaney’s male protagonists are tall, strapping hunks. I think there was a little bit of fantasy wish fulfillment going on there.

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